Hong Kong - Spinning Back the Decades

Chinese Fishing Junk in Hong Kong Harbour. Copyright Greta Solly 1969

Chinese Fishing Junk in Hong Kong Harbour. Copyright Greta Solly 1969

Finding my way back

I find it hard to get into my memoir-writing zone. I need props to push myself back in time.  I’m lucky that I always have letters and journals to hand when I’m writing about my travels, but sometimes I need more and reach for the photo albums.

When I visited my friend Greta last year, we talked about my recent memoir, The Hong Kong Letters, and looked at photographs that she had taken when we lived in Hong Kong in the 1960s. While I was busy writing home and taking the occasional snap, she was capturing the extraordinary magic of our surroundings in photographs. Greta’s portraits of people and scenes in Hong Kong quite took my breath away and she has kindly allowed me to use them.


I particularly love the way Greta has captured the shimmer of sunlight turning the fishing baskets to gold mesh. The Enterprise sailing dinghies in the background indicate how we did not have to go out looking for such magnificent shots., they were everyday life. Copyright Greta Solly 1969

I particularly love the way Greta has captured the shimmer of sunlight turning the fishing baskets to gold mesh. The Enterprise sailing dinghies in the background indicate how we did not have to go out looking for such magnificent shots., they were everyday life. Copyright Greta Solly 1969

Precious Footage

Films today do a wonderful job of recreating backdrop, bringing ambiance and history to life. The only problem is that the sets acquire a polish that wasn’t there. The streets are too clean, costume a little too fashionable and it is this slick finish that keeps me at arm’s length.  

So when I found that two classic Hong Kong melodramas: Love is a Many Splendored Thing and The World of Suzie Wong were shot on location in the 1950s - unusual for the time - it was like striking gold.

According to Wikipedia, the two stars loathed each other on set. Holden claimed that Jennifer Jones ate garlic before every love scene! The film made a lot of money for Han Suyin who wrote the original memoir.

According to Wikipedia, the two stars loathed each other on set. Holden claimed that Jennifer Jones ate garlic before every love scene! The film made a lot of money for Han Suyin who wrote the original memoir.

Both films starred William Holden – the American big sexy star of the 1950s. To me he was terribly miscast, especially as the poor artist in The World of Suzie Wong, but then I’m taking the blockbusters out of their time and space.

The book title spawned innumerable Suzie Wong bars and it’s one of those titles that never dies!

The book title spawned innumerable Suzie Wong bars and it’s one of those titles that never dies!


Acting and dialogue aside, the backdrop that slides past and the precious footage that anchors both these films in real time, is well worth waiting for. 

I am so pleased that with written accounts, photo and film, I’m able to spin back in time and revisit the Hong Kong I knew.

Captured is that wonderful, Chinese togetherness, fleshpots and sweatshops, teeming, jostling, shouting, floating, squatting, pimping humanity crammed onto a postdated island.

Bright lights in neon and strains of Chinese Opera. London buses and rickshaws, sampans and the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet, typhoon warnings and a Governor who wore plumes in his hat.

Fifty years ago, Hong Kong, was a deliriously wacky place.

A final beautiful shot from Greta’s album. Copyright Greta Solly 1969

A final beautiful shot from Greta’s album. Copyright Greta Solly 1969

Proof Reading with Christmas Faeries

Writing is a lot of Waiting

Waiting for feedback from editors, waiting for literary agents, waiting for publishers and waiting for proofs. Beyond my control, each wait tinged with anxiety, the passing time was hard to take. I didn’t want my work published posthumously, I grumbled to myself.

Yet perversely, when the first proofs of The Hong Kong Letters arrived for correction at the beginning of December last year, I could not find the time to read them. My house is always full of paying guests and I have a quartet of gorgeous daughters. That combination triggers a multitude of dramas in a minor key that intervene to arrest all my best laid plans.

It was the proofs that now lay waiting for me and the clock was ticking – they had to be back by the end of the month.

A Daughter’s Solution

When the family arrived for Christmas, Kim, my eldest daughter, declared my stress was overshadowing the festivities. “If everyone takes a chapter or two”, she said, “the proofreading will be done in no time.”

I was aghast at that idea.

But Kim is a force to be reckoned with and soon all around the house they sat; family, guests and friends, drinking wine, reading bits out loud, tutting and laughing, their pens flashing across the pages, editing chapters taken out of sequence, each with different ideas on grammar, punctuation and all the rest.

My irritable interjections that they were not meant to be editing, just proofreading were ignored. Dale who’d been my first editor took my arm, “Just wait, Mum. It’ll all be OK. Go for a long walk or something.”

I sulked instead and prowled the house, ignored. I wanted desperately to hang each one up like tinsel and run off on my own to a Norman Rockwell Christmas where I could sit by a roaring log fire, chewing the end of my pencil while children and adults played wholesomely and silently under a huge Christmas tree and faithful retainers basted the stuffed turkey.

EVEN THE Christmas fairy JOINED THE SHOW!

EVEN THE Christmas fairy JOINED THE SHOW!

And yet…

And yet… that crazy volatile wine-logged edit was marvellous. Pivotal. I sat down in the quiet when they had all left, and in the lull before the New Year, grateful and irritated in equal measure, accepting and rejecting, finally owed every word of my manuscript.

Nevertheless, I said nothing out loud when the second and final proofs appeared in my inbox. Instead I remembered an old acquaintance - one who lived far away - who’d once told me she’d done a proof-reading course.  She picked up typos that had fallen through so many reads - yet she too was desperate to edit… My grandmother who I’d described as a ‘thrifty, tall and vitreous stick of a woman’ became ‘virtuous’. I smiled at that, I am sure she was indeed virtuous, but that attribute was not one I cared about as a teenager.




When I Opened the Box…

Resized_20190304_134042_3902.jpeg

Eventually the day came in mid-March when Emily and Alice called me. “Mum there’s a great big carton downstairs! Come quick.” It’s a great thing to hold your own book finally. The frustration of waiting fell away and I was left with just the pleasure of having brought together my own tale and the story of my old friends, with the help of great mentors, the encouragement of family and the enthusiasm of the many guests who have passed through my house over the years.

One author I learned about recently said it took her twenty-seven drafts to complete her manuscript. I’ve been thinking that when I finish the first draft of my next book, I’ll just wait until Christmas and look stressed again…

The Hong Kong Letters is published by Arcadia

Up-to-date with Addiction

For years now my daughters have been urging that I smoke weed

They can’t believe I missed out in the swinging sixties and feel there is still time to rectify such a glaring omission. I argue that my credentials are good – after all I did marry their father - a new-age hippie who smoked pot in a cave in Devon bedecked with beads in the days of flower-power. 

Nope, they said, I needed to try it personally.

One of my dearest friends recently gave in to her son’s similar urging and, under a starry sky, rode a dragon – a magnificent bleached tree trunk thrown up on a New Zealand beach by winter storms. She joined the chorus.

My answer has always been the same

I really have never wanted to try it; I might like it and the last thing I need is another addiction.  Wine and gin slings are surely enough. I staunchly fought off the suggestion that weed should be on my bucket list and felt confident that I’d finally reached an age of being able to hold my ground…  I was a little smug about my ability to rebuff addiction.

The addiction would turn out to be a different kind of buzz...

I got a smart phone.  Another 'girls’ idea'. I kept loyal for years to my little old Nokia but the girls wore me down and I succumbed.  I could not refuse, for I knew I was trying their patience, calling them from afar asking them about timetables or directions.

Well let me tell you, weed would have been a cinch compared to this!

This is addiction 101.  I grab my phone as I wake up and roll over jabbing at the keys. You’ll see me in supermarket queues, waiting rooms, on buses and trains, no longer engrossed in a paperback or indulging in a little contemplation, but checking the news or Facebook.  Ninety percent cute animals and small children that aren't mine. Posts to share for a million likes and every day a birthday that I never knew about before. 

Clickbait has me in its thrall...

I can feel my eyes glazing when I flick from Trump to Brexit and whizz past ScoMo. Had I missed out on the last six months of them and just picked up the news now, I would have missed nothing!

Maybe I could lose the phone and get stoned. Or get stoned and lose the phone!

It has made for an easy New Year’s Resolution - I’m following Lifehackers Ten Tips to reduce my addiction - Ten, isn’t it meant to be Twelve?

https://www.lifehacker.com.au/2017/09/ten-tricks-for-checking-your-phone-less/

Fastnet Farewell

This is the second part of an account of my visit to Cape Clear Island - the southernmost inhabited part of Ireland in Co. Cork. Nearby is the iconic Fastnet Lighthouse.

All Clear - Part II

Eileen’s Bed & Breakfast - one of Ireland’s best

I slipped out from Eileen’s just before dawn to walk to the nearby headland. There I paused, held in thrall by the flashes of the Fastnet fading against the lightening sky.  After the night’s final sweep of light, the sky lay empty and I felt strangely disconnected and melancholy. 

I returned to Eileen’s to warm up by her fire while she prepared me a magnificent and immoderate breakfast. After our good-byes, my day’s walk back to the harbour took me past a small lough and then towards Dun-an-Oir, the Castle of Gold.

A Figment of Gold

Whispered tales sketched sightings of a galleon of gilded alabaster that once sailed the island’s coast. It would hove-to in the lee of the castle rock. Ghostly privateers slipped ashore to scale the cliffs and secrete gold within the castle vaults. The locals stayed away at night, deterred by sounds of spookish merrymaking. By day they could never find the stash. 

I would have been happy just to find the castle, for hours later, fighting the wind to keep my balance on all the highest spots, I couldn’t see a trace. Every drystone wall had an electric fence which made me nervous. I could roll under them, but what was I getting myself into? Highland cows are awesome beasts with horns. The weather closed in, seeping into my bones until the cold took my spirit. I gave up and followed the coast back towards the harbour. Had I not turned to watch a shearwater dart past, I would have carried on and spent an idle hour or two in the cafe waiting for the ferry. Yet, just that lifting my head, a curiosity for the flight of a vanished bird, changed all that. For there, behind me, was the castle silhouetted against high cliffs and sea. It vanished time and again before I reached it, by some trickery of coastline concealed. 

Dun-an-Oir

Dun-an-Oir

As Castles Go…

Dun-an-Oir was very small on a scale of castles, more of a stronghold but scored large for impact. It was built in the thirteenth Century by the O’Driscolls, a famous Cork family, loyal to their English overlords until a delinquent lapse saw them side with Irish rebels supported by the Spanish King. Although a close call, the English regained control and, in retaliation, they destroyed the O’Driscoll castles. And that was the end of Dun-an-Oir: in 1601, its top was blown away by English cannon.  

Built on a rounded bluff, it was once reached by a bridge of rock, so narrow that one early chronicler wrote, “few persons … will venture to walk over it”.

Winter storms pummelled the causeway and eventually, in 1940, it was swept away and the Castle of Gold was freed forever from the mainland.    

I lay flat on the clifftop, staring down at the swirling waters. I clutched handfuls of tussock to steady myself - the wind shafting under my anorak, my brain tumbling with the scudding seagulls below. All around, waves broke on rocky outcrops and in the distance, the sea lay like rolled lead, rattled by showers and scalded by shafts of sunshine.

I drew back from the unsettling edge to sit and imagine how tapestries shivered on the castle walls in the flicker of tallow candles and the comfortable glow of peat fires. I could smell the curls of smoke backing down the chimney in a gale, while down below, the sea bumped endlessly against the rocks.

As my eyes rested on the wider ocean, I saw it was flecked with bobbing black cormorants. I thought of those little black ink drawings on the chart at the pub; of the cargoes of treasure, steel, iron, coal and wool that all went to the bottom with the ships and seamen. And of the stuff of legend, the barrels of whisky that floated free and washed ashore or caught in fishermen’s nets.

Eventually, stiff from the cold, damp ground, I stirred myself and left the Castle of Gold to the wind and waves; the gulls and cormorants.

Castle.png

A turning

It was late afternoon when I caught the ferry back. I had kept going through Ireland, travelling by drift and in an uncertain frame of mind, putting off the turning point for my travels, for that point is not necessarily a halfway mark in time or geography. But when I took a last look at Fastnet, soft and grey in the haze, I felt my spirit-spindle move and, as if in acknowledgement, the light started its first sweep of another night’s watch.

I thought of all those who never went home: the victims of the raid on Baltimore, mariners, Spaniards, the crews of Fastnet, the Irish immigrants, the English intruders. 

The windswept cottage would need another buyer; the writer in me could make no further excuses. It was not a place I needed, neither was it solitude; it was self-mastery. I was ready for home, for family. Sydney’s summer beckoned.

Turning Point, Cape Clear Island Ferry about to leave for Baltimore

Turning Point, Cape Clear Island Ferry about to leave for Baltimore

 

Solo time on Cape Clear Island

Introduction

Today’s blog is the first of two written about a journey I made to the southernmost part of Ireland a few years ago. I was travelling alone.

I didn’t make a conscious choice to become a solo-traveller, it was more that I’d exhausted my options. My soul-mate wasn’t fit for my kind of journeys, my daughters grew up and set off along their own paths, my friends needed too much information.

Now I can’t make up my mind which is best. Both of course. It’s super cool to have a companion as long as you are not responsible for them having a good time. And, with luck, for long years ahead, you’ll have fun reminiscing about the plane you missed, the awful hotel and the food poisoning – for unravelling travel is all about the mishaps.

Yet there is a side to solo travel that hooks you in…  It is the closest thing to freedom that I know. Freedom can be a challenge.

At first, I felt Ireland too tame, too close to childhood… the language, the food and gentle, emerald countryside. It was November and there were not many tourists about – they’d gone home, back to their jobs and families. I loitered. My return-ticket to Sydney still open. Not wanting to go forward or to go back.

Grand Irish Day!

Grand Irish Day!

ALL CLEAR - Part I


I took to Ireland for a month. Content, if I missed one bus, to take another.  But wafting doesn’t just happen; the breezes stir from within. Your familiar - child, seeker or pilgrim - scouts out the way.  In my case, each time I’m led to the edge, to the shore.

So it was inevitable that I’d reach the shredded coast of southern Cork. Its caves and coves were once the haunt of pirates and smugglers. Where I alighted, the small village of Baltimore, had an added fame. You may not know of the Sack of Baltimore; I confess, neither did I. 

The Sack of Baltimore

In 1631, led by a Dutch sea captain who had converted to Islam, Barbary pirates raided Baltimore, capturing white slaves for the markets of Algiers.  A crew of Janissaries, an elite militia, disciplined and deadly, crept ashore in the dark and took up position in front of each cottage.  At a signal, they fired thatched roofs, hollered obscenities and smashed down doors with metal staves. 

For me, walking down to the harbour in the sunshine nearly four centuries later, it was impossible to comprehend the terror of more than a hundred men, women and children herded down the same path under a crescent moon. 

A reminder of the most ruinous raid by Islamists ever made on British or Irish soil, swung above my path - the face of a fierce corsair, painted on the sign for The Algiers Inn.

Sign on the pub wall

Sign on the pub wall

I hurried on to book my ticket to Cape Clear Island, the southernmost inhabited point of Ireland. The Dún-an-Óir ferryboat had a storybook look with a bright orange hull and a jaunty cabin. 

Charting Marine Disasters

I had an hour before the morning sailing. I spent it in Bushe’s Pub on the Quay. It smelt of stale beer and the low winter sun slid in and did it no favours. Still it was warm and friendly, filled with marine memorabilia: brass fittings, barometers, lanterns and ships’ clocks, lined the walls. Pride-of-place went to a nautical chart on which, someone, with a steady hand and great care, had recorded every shipwreck thereabouts, each one annotated with name, date, cargo and souls lost. Each tiny ink drawing held a vessel evermore in the moment of calamity: capsizing, upended, breached or overwhelmed by the sea; a Glasgow coaster, yachts, steamships, a Spanish galleon, an American packet ship, local trawlers, French and Spanish too.

When it was nearly time for me to go for the ferry, I asked the barman about staying the night on Cape Clear. 

“You’ll not find a bed on Cléire.  Everything’s shut.  It’s winter!” 

Ferry waiting for me at Baltimore Harbour Wharf

Ferry waiting for me at Baltimore Harbour Wharf

The Dún-an-Óir in grand weather

As the Dún-an-Óir plied over the Atlantic swells of Roaringwater Bay under a capricious sky, the sun ran a wand along the sombre mountains of Cork, lighting swathes of bright green, purple and luminous yellow landfall. 

I wedged myself by the bridge instead of down below with the old salts, their dogs and their bundles.  The skipper chatted amicably while navigating powerful currents, islands, shoals and reefs.  He was sorry - no whales or dolphins for me to see but grand weather I must agree.  

I asked if he knew anywhere I could stay for the night. He pulled out a battered mobile and punched the keys. Then a brief shouted conversation, before he nodded, wrote ‘Eileen’ on my ferry ticket and said, “You’ll be right.”

Soon afterwards, he pointed ahead. Out to sea, a dramatic rock bore aloft a white minaret, radiant in sunshine. I gasped with astonishment. Was this some parting gift from the pirates?  My brain scrambled for a better explanation and remembered the BBC shipping forecasts of my childhood.  A litany of names for areas off costal Britain and Ireland: Viking, Forties, Dogger, Trafalgar, Sole, Lundy, Fastnet. 

I was surprised to hear myself say: “Fastnet?” voicing a subliminal knowledge.   

“Aye, that’s the rock,” came the reply.  

Fastnet Rock - the current Lighthouse became operational in 1904.

Fastnet Rock - the current Lighthouse became operational in 1904.

The Fastnet Rock was the last sight of Ireland for thousands of 19th Century Irish emigrants sailing to America.

Reuter’s News

Ships returning from the New World hove-to as they passed Fastnet, fired a signal and jettisoned a canister packed with news bulletins. Cape Clear Isle’s Telegraph Master waited impatiently for row-boats to recover the floating cache so he could tap out transatlantic tidings that would reach London days before the same ships entered the Thames. The scoop was the idea of a clever German newsman named Reuter.

A break in the rocks and we turned in to shelter

The entrance to Cape Clear’s harbour came suddenly, a narrow break in the rocks that could easily be missed. A few people waited on the pier for bundles of newspapers, mechanical parts and parcels to be thrown ashore and, within moments, everyone had gone, on foot or by banger – an island motor car sustained with bits of wire, tape and plywood panels.

Ferry from Baltimore in Clear Isle harbour

Ferry from Baltimore in Clear Isle harbour

I bid the ferry crew farewell and walked up the path from the harbour. I passed a statue of the Virgin Mary in a grotto, garish in blue and pink. She struck me as incongruous and yet, I mused, only a short time before, an exotic minaret had seemed plausible and sublime.  

The only building was a café and general store.  A sign said, ‘Back in Five Minutes’.  Travelling around Ireland in November, I’d felt the draught of the doors shutting behind me.  I knew such a notice could mean, ‘Back in five months.’ 

Nevertheless I waited and, minutes later, a young woman ushered me in.  I asked for directions to Eileen’s.  She took my pack for someone to ‘take over’ and gave me coffee at a table littered with leaflets and a guidebook written by an American, an island resident for some twenty years.  He said that he wrote every morning and took his binoculars and walked the island every afternoon.  A deep cord lurched within me.

A whole island to walk around

The island was only three miles long and I set off to walk it; a seemingly deserted but homely patchwork of cottages and tiny green fields divided by drystone walls running over gentle hills.  The road dipped and ended in a slipway where workmen in fluorescent jackets manoeuvered a hefty barge, with two tractors on board. It belched, smelly and noisy, lifting and falling in the swell. I resented the interruption to my meditative amble - the whole sight, a bleak, disagreeable tangle of concrete, hawsers and exhaust fumes.

I waved and then turned back to retrace my steps until a fork in the road where I changed direction. Shortly afterwards I paused when I saw a For Sale sign outside the dearest little house. For a moment, I wanted it with all my heart and soul. Somewhere I too could write all morning and walk all afternoon. Because of the wind, I didn’t hear anyone approach and jumped when a voice behind me said, “Want to buy it?”

“Of course. And live happily ever after”, I said, turning to meet the stranger.

He laughed easily, he was my age, a pair of binoculars slung around his neck.

I said, “With that accent you must be the author”. 

He thrust out his hand: “Chuck’s the name”.

Over the next mile or so, Chuck filled my head with tales of the Castle of Gold, a rock called ‘Ship’s Bottom’, Bronze Age standing stones, blow holes and sea caves. 

I asked him about the derelict windmills I’d passed on the way to the slipway.

“It was an early experiment with wind power.  Incredibly successful until the Government did a deal with a utility company and, despite our protests, put in a subterranean cable.”

Each turn of the road gave us a different topic. Had I seen the memorial to the 1979 Fastnet Yacht Race? I remembered the tragedy well. Fifteen sailors died in the storm of the century. Chuck related the bravery of the Baltimore Lifeboat men who’d put into Cape Clear before being called to take part in the biggest sea rescue since Dunkirk.  

When we parted, Chuck directed me up to a Watchtower built by the British to dissuade Napoleon from using Ireland as a backdoor to England. I was up there when, out to sea, the Fastnet Lighthouse began to flash. So chivalrous, so thrilling. My ancestors were lighthouse builders and I indulge myself by revelling in the connection.

One of a series of towers built round the Irish Coast

One of a series of towers built round the Irish Coast

In fact, a few hours later, when Eileen gave me tea and cake by the fire, I told her too of my lighthouse genetics. She nodded wisely; I sensed she’d had many a guest bewitched by Fastnet, a lighthouse that weathered monster waves.  It struck me she’d seen out many a storm herself. She was round like a smooth grey pebble, tumbled by sea and warmed by the sun; steadfast.

 

Part 2 of All Clear will be my next blog.

The Sack of Baltimore is well worth further reading. Google it and surprise yourself!

Irish Endpiece.png

A Full Blown Bumpy Train Track in Burma

Happy Dale - she wrestled the windows to the floor and got the fresh air...

Happy Dale - she wrestled the windows to the floor and got the fresh air...

The runaway train came down the track and she blew… 

I hadn’t thought of that song since childhood but it flew into my mind as we rattled along on the train to Mandalay.

I was travelling in Burma with my daughters Dale and Alice, and Ben, Alice’s friend.  We arrived early at the station in Rangoon. I said I’d booked sleepers…  Oh well, my mistake, I must have booked reclining seats…  Surely?

I wanted to do this trip because my grandfather, Jimmy, did it in 1908. I'm sure he managed to organise a sleeper - I imagine him in a spartan but clean and comfortable teak carriage with brass fittings and plush curtains. He wrote precious little about it except that there were any amount of pagodas and rice paddies to be seen. That hadn't changed.

The carriages were gloomy and dilapidated, the seats decidedly fixed, but with nice clean seat covers.

I jumped when Dale unclicked her window and pushed hard to slide it down with a resounding bang. I shouldn't have been surprised - the first thing Dale does entering an enclosed space is make for any aperture and wrench it open as if she'd just entered a vacuum. I'm nervous with her in lifts in case she spies the emergency hatch.

The train took off with a hoot and a barrage of rapid-fire tortured metal crashes. The small neon tubes stopped flickering once we got going, the old-fashioned fans did an excellent job and the slip-stream quickly filled the chewing-gum-green polyester curtains and made them flutter madly; a theatrical touch as the train gathered speed - clickity-clack.

This was no pottering old train, we charged along, rolling and rattling, shaking and bouncing.

The doors at the end of the carriages alternately flapped open and banged shut the whole journey. The engine tore ahead, but the carriages were not letting up the chase. A change in engine tempo brought ear-shattering bangs and bonks as the carriages careened together. The carriages are old Chinese rolling stock originally made for a wider rail gauge which is why there is so much play and swing.

This was our upper class carriage. Chewing-gum-green is a local favourite. It was the colour of the curtains in the trains and of the squashy synthetic matting in pagodas.   

This was our upper class carriage. Chewing-gum-green is a local favourite. It was the colour of the curtains in the trains and of the squashy synthetic matting in pagodas.

 

Heave-ho! Smokers Go!

Clouds of pungent smoke curled over us from the thick cheroot of a portly local gent sitting behind us.  We pointed indignantly to the no-smoking signs and he signaled just one.  A little later the motion got to him and he was desperately in need of the sea-sickness pills that I'd read passengers sometimes needed on this trip. I wondered if we should have let him carry on smoking! Ben and Alice rapidly decamped to another seat.

Other than the woes of the poor old fellow behind, our fellow passengers were delightful. A monk watching boxing on his mobile-phone made us smile.

Dale likened it to flying on a wobble board.

I gave up trying to take photos or read my book.  Even more reason to admire the girls that cat-walked up the carriage with tin salvers of rice-filled wraps on their heads, calling out their wares. The food sellers changed at each station and brought different specialties. Durian, huge, spiky fruit bound up with pink ribbon for ease of handling; water and soft drinks. Little roasted birds on skewers made us all qualmish yet cellophane-wrapped strips of dried fish splayed out from the tail fin didn't evoke the same emotion. Huge lumpy guavas; rice and crayfish wrapped in bamboo leaves and hot cobs of corn.  A man with an enormous thermos waved sachets of Nescafé and others hawkers bristled with plastic pods of biscuits and chips.

Ben juggling hot corn cobs and a plastic bag with butter which was getting beyond its use-by-date.

Ben juggling hot corn cobs and a plastic bag with butter which was getting beyond its use-by-date.

Sleep wasn’t easy, we all had restless legs, whatever position we took up.  We got on the train drenched from monsoon rain and the question was whether to keep our soaking shoes on or reveal our water-logged feet, pale and creepy.  I recalled that it was terribly rude to point with  feet in parts of Asia and felt going to sleep with bare feet in the contorted positions we are adopting, we could easily make a cultural faux pas.

Yet even as the train bucked along - and at times I swore it left the track altogether - the clickity-clack beat a lullaby rhythm and rocked us to sleep. We woke now and then to stretch and peer into the darkness at a floodlit golden pagoda keeping watch over the flatness and blackness outside. Each body-stir excited the food vendors who never gave up trying.

Ben and Alice said they got no sleep.................

Ben and Alice said they got no sleep.................

Once daylight had woken everyone up, two monks appeared at the front of our carriage. The first held before him a white and silver Buddha – the head sparkling with a battery-operated casino of led-lights -  blue, green and red. The monk stood, strangely still as the floor pranced beneath his leather sandals, and then began to walk slowly up the carriage, while his side-kick behind clanged rhythmically on a metal symbol.

“I think we’ve been blessed,” said Ben. 

Spot on Ben. I hope none of us had feet pointing his way.

The runaway train came down the track, her whistle wide and her throttle back, And she blew, blew,
blew, blew, blew.

 

Wet Lips and Wet Feet in Rangoon's Monsoon

Fabulous flower stalls in Rangoon shine however much mist and monsoon rain tumble down!

Fabulous flower stalls in Rangoon shine however much mist and monsoon rain tumble down!

Delight’s guaranteed when I get to travel with any one of my daughter quartet. A couple of months back in Myanmar I scored a double - Dale and Alice joined me, as well as Ben, Alice’s boyfriend.

My travel companions, Alice, Dale and Ben

My travel companions, Alice, Dale and Ben

Our itinerary?

Our touring options were limited by the monsoon season and compounded by a dearth of planning. Dale wanted beaches, Ben the Himalayas and I, the Irrawaddy. We did none of these.  Alice didn’t want collision course road-trips in clapped-out cars, night buses and hiking.  We did all of those.

Footsteps

One reason I’d suggested we meet up in Burma was because it was one of the few places my maternal grandfather Jimmy had visited that I had not already, albeit inadvertently, visited too.

It was only recently that I re-read the letters he wrote home to Glasgow from a round-the-world trip in 1907 and realised how many times our footsteps had crossed. I thought it would be a great deal of fun to make them a connection point and continue to put my feet in his shoes, observing the then and now, associating events, paralleling and distinguishing experiences. It has led to a great deal of conversation with the dead man… which is rather nice, as I never got to know him when he was alive.

My maternal Grandfather, Jimmy

My maternal Grandfather, Jimmy

His father’s firm in Glasgow made bronze and brass marine and engine fittings for customers all over the British Empire and beyond.  When Jimmy visited Rangoon all he wrote was that he bumped into an old acquaintance in the lobby of his hotel and that there were "any amount of pagodas..." One was so large that, "covered from top to bottom with gold it can be seen from a great distance sparkling in the sun."

Rangoon

We only had one full day in Rangoon which the military junta renamed Yangon. I continue to call it Rangoon as do many Burmese as a way of thumbing their noses at the Generals and it sounds more musical to my ear. 

Rangoon in a monsoon - slippery pavements, downpours sheeting off conical bamboo hats, the scattered petals of rain-smashed flowers and business as usual. Every day rain drums on tin roofs, puddles on the top of plastic shelters and washes across the streets, heaping debris into low barricades and gurgling down the gutters. 

We walked the streets lined with crumbling colonial-era buildings. (I have to admit to being as fascinated as I am embarrassed by the remains of Empire.) 

IMG_5670.JPG

Jimmy's visit coincided with the city's colonial heyday when its infrastructure and public services were every bit as good as in his Scottish home town.

Hundreds of buildings from that era survive near the river downtown. Survive is the operative word; many are abandoned and while the roots of the banyans smooch the sidewalks, disrupting paving stones and dismantling drains, above their branches curl up the once-stately buildings, creep through ruined window frames and finger crumbling balconies. Spongy emerald moss sneaks up another brick in the wall each day of the monsoon hosting the creeping decay.

We’d barely reached halfway on our colonial walk when the rain came sweeping in, swerving off the Bodi trees to pour its libation over the streetwalks. The locals have their umbrellas primed on a hair-trigger and, with an ageless hitch to their longyis, can, in a flash, flap open plastic tarps with a rewarding crack and drop them expertly over their market wares.  

Some shelter!

We made a mad dash for shelter and found ourselves under the portico of the Strand Hotel.

Alice trying to shake the rain out of her ear in the shelter of the Strand's portico.

Alice trying to shake the rain out of her ear in the shelter of the Strand's portico.

First opened in 1901, like Raffles in Singapore and The Peninsula in Hong Kong, it was dubbed the finest hostelry east of the Suez. Jimmy? There’s little doubt that’s where he stayed – it was where every well-heeled business traveller headed.

The Strand Hotel

The iconic Strand Hotel has recently been renovated in a classic colonial style with an acquired panache which outstrips historic reality. Yet there is enough heritage to fool the gullible creative like me.  I loved the black rattan chairs and striped upholstery, the white marble flooring, ceiling fans and chandeliers. I asked the concierge in the Grand Lobby if the hotel had records going back to 1907 but of course they didn’t. Nothing much survived the WWII Japanese occupation and neglect thereafter.

Dale and Alice in the Strand lobby.

Dale and Alice in the Strand lobby.

We were all jet-lagged and outside it still poured. So we repaired to the hotel’s legendary Sarkies Bar where adventurers and explorers have hung out for over a century. There we sank into comfortable chairs and took delight in our own company amid the carefully crafted teak-edged opulence.

IMG_4841.JPG

 

“A toast to Jimmy is required.” I said.

“Cocktails,” said Alice.

Alice with the cocktail menu in Sarkies Bar

Alice with the cocktail menu in Sarkies Bar

We spent a decadent afternoon working our way through the Strand’s Cocktail menu: Negroni, Margarita, Russians various and Ben’s tipple, Espresso Martini.

Next day we just got wet feet

It continued to pour when we visited the Shwedagon Paya – the pagoda that Jimmy mentioned that dominates the city. It is one of Buddhism’s most sacred sites and, legend says, the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world. It has survived divine and human insult, although the earthquakes and invaders took a toll. The British dug down attempting to turn it into a gunpowder magazine. Then they made it a military HQ for almost a century. And when they allowed the Burmese to return to their iconic site, European visitors and the British troops posted at the pagoda refused to accede to removing their shoes. What were the British thinking? I cringed and hoped Jimmy had removed his brogues.

Wet and shiny ...

Wet and shiny ...

The rain lashed the marble terraces and we squelched the circuit around the golden stupa on soggy foam mats spread over white marble slabs. It was hard to be reflective, with the paper pages of the tourist map disintegrating in our hands and creepy chewing-gum green sponge beneath our bare feet – but we stuck pretty closely to the route as going off-piste was fraught with danger for the wet marble was like a skating rink!

Clockwise from top left: Backs to Buddha - and another convert to social media. A more traditional interaction between a monk and a young girl and I stand by while Alice reads all about it before the paper map finally falls to pieces. All cycles!

Clockwise from top left: Backs to Buddha - and another convert to social media. A more traditional interaction between a monk and a young girl and I stand by while Alice reads all about it before the paper map finally falls to pieces. All cycles!

We did not see the Shwedagon Paya sparkling in the sun as my grandfather encountered it, nevertheless, when we looked up the mist gave the gold a soft luster and it glowed softly biding its time yet again until the monsoon was over. 

IMG_5686.JPG

And from there we went to catch our train to Mandalay... a tale for another day.

 

Photo Credits: Thanks Dale, Ben and Alice for sharing photos!

Threads of Hong Kong's past renewed

Neon Light - Courtesy of the artist Wattana Wattanapun. www.wattana-art.com. On display in the Wattana Gallery, Chiang Mai, Thailand. I found this portrait of a girl in neon quite haunting. It reminded me of a side of Hong Kong that I am glad is past, but it seems perhaps although the neon lights of the girlie-bars in Hong Kong have gone, the exploitation of young women continues relentlessly on.

Neon Light - Courtesy of the artist Wattana Wattanapun. www.wattana-art.com. On display in the Wattana Gallery, Chiang Mai, Thailand. I found this portrait of a girl in neon quite haunting. It reminded me of a side of Hong Kong that I am glad is past, but it seems perhaps although the neon lights of the girlie-bars in Hong Kong have gone, the exploitation of young women continues relentlessly on.

I have just been visiting Hong Kong with my daughter, Dale...

I lived in Hong Kong in the 1960s. The Vietnam War was at its height and droves of American servicemen on R&R - Rest and Recreation - visited Hong Kong on furloughs of a few days. Snatched from the battlefield, hours later they were high on hormones, booze and pills in hedonistic Hong Kong.  As one patron explained to me, it wasn't that there was not sex-for-sale in Saigon, but the choice was much broader in Hong Kong; White Russians, Americans and Brits joined girls-on-the-game from all over South East Asia. There was no curfew either and no war to wake up to.

That clientele has long disappeared. The demand will always be there, but now the sex industry is heavily regulated and operates so discreetly I thought it really had disappeared. But of course it hasn't.

Nevertheless, another wave of exploitation followed after Vietnam. And again, the exploited were young women.

Uncomfortable meeting places...

In a pedestrian underpass in Central, Hong Kong’s CBD, Dale and I came across hundreds of women, sitting on sheets of cardboard, lining both sides of the long tunnel. We thought that there must be some kind of protest underway, but the groups were obviously social, centred around thermos flasks of tea and snacks. Nearby young women were handing out evangelical pamphlets.  

Further on, under a flyover, we found groups of young Muslim girls intent on studying religious scripts.  I was very surprised at the number of hijabs and headscarves I had seen around.  I just didn’t remember Hong Kong having a noticeable Muslim population. 

Original trams, KFC and a young girl on the streets of Causeway Bay, Hong Kong

Original trams, KFC and a young girl on the streets of Causeway Bay, Hong Kong

A friend gave us the simple explanation...

The girls were imported domestic workers with no-where to go on their day off. 

In the late 1960s, a good Chinese amah was highly sought after. Competition from factories that paid higher wages was depleting the pool of domestic workers while the demand was rising as more well-paid women entered the workforce. My friend said that in the 1970s, the situation became critical and Hong Kong started recruiting young girls from far away as household maids. The first wave was from the Philippines - many were evangelical Christians. The second wave was from Indonesia. The ripples continue on with new generations of girls arriving. All are on short-term contracts and are not subject to Hong Kong’s labour laws. Stories of exploitation and abuse are rife.

The girls come to Hong Kong, full of hope and optimism - with expectations that are seldom met. They need to work for a couple of years just to pay off the debts they incur getting the job. And often they are kicked out before they have a chance to reap any benefit at all. In any case, any savings are remitted to their families.

No home to go to...

I felt saddened. The Chinese amahs I knew were part of the fabric of the family. Tough old birds who to a certain extent ruled the roost and certainly joined in the gossip. They had homes to go to – family members strung out over the Colony and the mainland.

For these new girls, it is very different.  They have no family, no homes to go to, nowhere to spend time off and they don't have enough disposable income to meet friends in comfort in a cafe. 

So they gather in the gloomy concrete underworld of an inhospitable city. 

They have a dream...

My friend told us it is said the girls dream of falling in love and being spirited out of their predicament. It virtually never happens yet folklore fuels the hope that a wealthy foreigner – unlike Hongkongers who give the girls a wide-berth - will fall for them.           

“It can happen, a young amah from the house of my great-grandmother married the son of a French diplomat,” my friend said. Anecdotes like that keep the flame alive.

Connections to The World of Suzie Wong...

A book published in the 1950s - The World of Suzie Wong, told of an improbable fifties romance between a penniless English artist and a Wanchai bar girl.  It became an iconic, though twisted, representation of Hong Kong's girlie bar culture.

In the 21 Century, religious house-maids imported into in a grown-up and rather prim Hong Kong share the same dreams.

Synchronicity...

I started writing this blog once I reached Chiang Mai, Thailand where I am staying for a couple of weeks.  Without any idea of the collection on view, I visited the Wattana Art Gallery, built especially to house the collection of Wattana Wattanapun, a Thai artist with an international reputation. I went, on a hot day, simply because it was around the corner from where I was staying, it would be air-conditioned and it was en route to a cafe. I was entranced from the moment I entered the door; no more than that: I was blown away - cool marble floors, natural light and a building that the artist himself designed to house his work certainly showcased it perfectly. 

Much of Wattana's art explores the beauty of women and the inherent vulnerability that goes with the appeal. I found it almost impossible to look at the images without also a fear that they were too exquisite to survive.

Wattana wraps the female form in traditional textiles. Somehow this heightens the tension. The textiles so perfectly compliment the beauty of these young girls yet we know that they are not enough to protect them from the ravages of modern greed and gratification. It is as if once stripped of these gorgeous textiles, they will be stripped of traditional values, skills and artisan-ship, youth and community and laid bare and wasted. 

I felt deeply moved by Wattana's work. I felt a sense of loss and a sense of joy. He contrasts painstakingly painted textile patterns with free bold brush-strokes for gorgeous sensual bodies. Both under threat and yet both offering some kind of redemption. The fragile culture of dress and textile diversity is hanging on by threads and the exploitation of women engulfs us all. Both need our help.  His work is a call to arms. 

I have used Neon Light by Wattana Wattanapun at the start of my blog. It is acrylic on paper. The image was unlike his other work and it seemed to encapsulate the waves of exploitation that are the sad side of all the other positive aspects of the legacy of Hong Kong.

www.wattana-art.com

Hong Kong Revisited

Hard to get my bearings in Hong Kong! The Law Courts and iconic Bank of China building look like toy-town nestled in the middle of all the skyscrapers.

Hard to get my bearings in Hong Kong! The Law Courts and iconic Bank of China building look like toy-town nestled in the middle of all the skyscrapers.

I landed in Hong Kong last week, to take a trip down memory lane

I’d lived there half-a-century ago.  It wasn't that I wasn't prepared for change but I was travelling with Dale, my daughter, and initially there was nothing I could show her, it was all bloody gone.

The years had wrought havoc. Like a botched facelift, Hong Kong was stretched and shiny with a touch of zombie. For a start, they’d shrunk the harbour! 

I couldn’t work it out until someone explained The Star Ferry Wharf had moved, rebuilt on the edge of reclaimed land.  Dale asked me how land could be reclaimed if it wasn’t there before.  I said I didn’t know, but I thought it made everybody feel better to call it that, as if it really was theirs in the first place.

In another fifty years it is doubtful whether there will be a harbour at all… 

I remembered chickening out of the annual cross-harbour swim in 1969 as it looked a bloody long way, but the way things are going, I’ll be able to come back and swim it when I’m a hundred years old and I’ll smash it. 

Who needs a harbour anyway these days?

Why bother... tunnels burrow under it, bridges connect islands to the mainland, flyovers do their thing. The harbour, my quintessential Hong Kong, has become emasculated. The last of the old junks have long gone along with the lighters, water taxis, sampans and all the other craft that constantly plied back and forward between the island and mainland; the waterway reduced to a bland irrelevance.

I took a deep breath...

Actually Dale told me to take a deep breath.  She could see I felt overwhelmed and it was all new to Dale so she felt a magic that still lingered on. And I mused that was the real change, you could take a deep breath - no Hong Kong pong, although like an idiot, I put my nose in the air trying to scent that awful smell as if I was missing some elixir from my youth!

We took the Peak Tram. That was familiar and so too was the restaurant at the top. We stopped for lunch and my old love affair with Hong Kong rekindled - it is still stunning.

Lunch on the Peak

Lunch on the Peak

 

A friend took us out to Sham Shiu Po by the MTR - a rapid-transit underground system that was new to me.  He also said Sham Shiu Po was one of Hong Kong's poorest areas although there were more Westerners than any other area we visited because of a new art college. So that put my nostalgia in its place - the poverty and the foreigners making it familiar!

I started to feel more at home

On the second day, I spotted the iconic Bank of China building, albeit now dwarfed by skyscrapers and bereft of its spooky Red China cloak and dagger atmospheric. And I found other familiars: in Causeway Bay where we stayed, air conditioners lodged in high-rise windows above, still dripped onto the pavements and onto our heads, Chinese girls still loved to wear pink and I still wondered why. Hong Kong still wakes up late - I always liked that - a lull before the frenetic activity of the day. It's a grotty bleary time of half-shuttered doors; sudden sloshing water- buckets; hawking, horrible spit and absolutely no polish. If it's all too much, look up and still there is one of Hong Kong's wonders - bamboo scaffolding.

Dale and I watched these guys for ages...

Dale and I watched these guys for ages...

And on the far side...

We took off for the other side of the island.  The bus twisted past Deep Bay and Repulse Bay on narrow roads that I drove so often in my beat-up cream-coloured mini – a car that would be very out of place in present day affluent Hong Kong - and at last we reached St Stephen’s Beach at Stanley and most of it remained steadfast to my memory.

I walked out along the old pier looking over the bay where I learned to swim, water ski and sail in quick succession. All the capsizes, all the immersions, weekend races and even a half-hearted attempt to train for that damned cross-harbour swim.

The clock is ticking for Hong Kong again

In thirty years the agreement that maintains Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region will end and finally, it will be integrated into China. The Hongkongers I spoke to were resigned to that. The clock cannot be turned back they said. When I lived there it was thirty years until the British left the Crown Colony of Hong Kong. We could not believe that the clock would move forward.

And in thirty years, I’ll be back for my cross-harbour swim!

 

Baby – the new millennials most popular name

Is it just me? 

Or is it a generational thing?  As soon as I got pregnant, Mike and I started thinking about names.  Boy or girl?  We hadn’t a clue. We just knew whatever the sex, we'd need a name.

Some thought we were ahead of the pack when we choose unisex names, although Kim and Dale have suggested a certain laxity, convinced – incorrectly – that we economised.

Our girls were named at their first gasp and hit the breast identified – names penned on pink wristbands. 

Whereas...

My grandchildren, their sex no secret, date of arrival perfectly pinpointed,  are just “Baby” for days or, in the case of our first grandchild, for weeks - or maybe it just seemed like that. 

So that painful business of tossing names around; recalling ex-romances, nasty friends at school, suicides, embittered relatives or business partners, takes place AB – after birth!  

I don’t get it – how can you expect a child for nine months and not have that organised!

My girls hoot with laughter at the thought.  How, they say, could anyone name a newborn before meeting him or her?  How could Mike and I have done that

It seems to me that if everyone did that, there’d be a sudden increase in names like Ginger, Scarlett, Angel, Beau, Hello Sailor, or maybe Hello Tiger, and Holy Moses.  Or if the name rolled off the cuff too early, perhaps a whole new lexicon like Ouch, Hallelujah or Never Again.

When I had Alice in South Africa, a lovely Zulu nurse told me her own name translated to English was “Enough” and it was her Dad that named her!  She was the eighth and last-born in her family.

Well done Emily and Tom – and welcome Ashton Fox – our 5th grandchild - that only took ten days!

 

WWOOFing to Nepalese Bean Time

Every turn in Nepal has the promise of delight

Every turn in Nepal has the promise of delight

When I first read about WWOOFing - Willing Workers On Organic Farms, I thought it sounded like a fun way to volunteer

When I read that the program was operating in Nepal, I was hooked.  Dale, my daughter, was joining me on my travels and she loved getting her hands into the earth and I'd peel a few vegetables... or so I thought. The farm we chose was near Lion's Choke, not far from Chitwan National Park.

Our host farmer, Barun, greeted us at the bus stop. Before he started using WWOOFers his children had to skip school to help him plant and harvest.

I could see he was disconcerted

He sized us up. Dale, young and lithe, passed at first muster, but he wasn’t at all sure about me. I wondered if I should snort, stamp my foot or maybe show my teeth?

Eventually he said it, “You are very old. I have never had anyone as old as you.”

Dale and I in Nepal   

Dale and I in Nepal

 

Barun walked us out through the village. We talked on the way and he confided that the farm was organic simply because he couldn’t afford pesticides - Barun was knee-deep in debt.

The pressure was etched on his face as he spoke, but when we turned into a grove of bamboo, Barun’s daughters burst through the greenery, dancing with excitement and he broke into a wide grin. In the small clearing was their mud house.  A lean-to where we would sleep had a bed of wooden slats resting on an earth floor.  

I find a friend

Barun’s wife greeted us.  Mama was sturdy and cheerful, the perfect foil for Barun, the thinker and worrier. But for me, the warmest welcome came unexpectedly.

I could see that Grandma was surprised when she saw me. Her eyes lit up.  She was tiny; all superfluous flesh had vanished leaving sinew and features, big eyes, big nose and mouth and one solitary big tooth.  She wore gold earrings, but had lost her gold nose-ring working in the fields. She kept the hole open with a splinter of bamboo in the hope that one day she’d find it.

An early start

It was chilly and just light enough to see how thick the mist was when we turned out the next morning. Through the gloom loomed Barun’s oxen trailing a wooden plough. Barun halted the great beasts to drill us in bean-planting 101. With a sack under one arm, we were to scoop handfuls of slippery beans and drop them one-by-one into the fresh furrows.  Too close and we would run out of beans, too far and we’d have beans left over. Each bean was precious and the bloody things bounced.

By lunchtime, Dale and I were beat and we passed out briefly in our stifling lean-to before Barun roused us to get back to work.

Who me?  You are seriously suggesting you want me to plant another ten thousand beans... 

Who me?  You are seriously suggesting you want me to plant another ten thousand beans... 

Dale was infuriatingly proficient and I was not

The afternoon shift was worse; the heat made me dizzy and I wanted to throttle Barun who tailed me, muttering as he remedied my irregular spacing, hunting my errant bouncing beans.

Planting needed a lop-sided sway which made my body ache; even my ankles balked from walking barefoot on uneven ground. Dale fared much better; up ahead she sashayed, a gilded nymph sowing to the beat of an ancient rhythm, her beans perfectly spaced.

When school finished, Barun’s daughters joined us, giggling with infectious good-humour, joining Dale in making the job look effortless. At last, every bean was bedded. 

Dale was definitely an immediate hit with the family.

Dale was definitely an immediate hit with the family.

Relief at the day's end followed by magic...

We left Barun to finish painstaking watering row-by-row and joined the village women walking a humpy narrow path between the fields.  An ancient stone cistern, fed by a gurgling stream, was a place to bathe. The soft water soothed our tired muscles in the day’s warm afterglow.

As we strolled back, Dale stopped and grabbed my arm, “Look Mum,” and I turned to see in the distance the snow-capped massif of the Annapurnas tinged with molten gold. “It was all worth today just for this moment,” she whispered.

It got easier

Over the next week, we spread smelly chicken shit on the fields, cleared old crops and planted out vegetable seedlings. The work got easier as we fell into a rhythm with the family.

At the end of each day, we'd eat curry and rice for supper, sometimes followed by honeyed pancakes and a jug of warm buffalo milk brought straight in from the byre. We sat together on the earthen floor and ate from a communal bowl with our fingers.

Afterwards, we’d pull chairs into the little clearing in front of the house and relax. Everyone had daily tasks, but once done, each one stopped. So while it bothered me when one of them was still working and the others relaxing, I realised that while their lives were hard labour, yet down-time was well demarcated too.

Laughter rang out easily, transcending the lack of material possessions and Barun’s anxiety.

Time out ...

And then there was Grandma...

The first time I went to fetch water from the outside stand-pipe the handle was so stiff I could scarcely move it.  I put the bucket down and tried two hands and my body weight - then to my chagrin, out flew grandma who whacked it with one hand, water flooding out in a torrent along with her laughter.   

Grandma talked to me non-stop. It mattered not that I didn’t understand a word. She showed me her herb patch, her room and her shrine. She tried to teach me how to separate husks from beans; tilting and pitching her round wicker tray with the skill of a juggler, the speckled ovals gathering together at her command.

Grandma with her grandson - I did say she was tiny - but hey, what a dynamo!

Grandma with her grandson - I did say she was tiny - but hey, what a dynamo!

We learned so much and admired so much

Barun had excellent English and he explained the beans were first harvested with their stalks and sun-dried before being spread on the ground so his buffalo could trample them bursting open the thick, hard pods. Any pods that had not opened were collected by Grandma and she opened them by hand.  Once separated, the husks were kept for kindling - nothing was wasted.

The family was almost self-sufficient; only flour and sugar were missing. They couldn’t grow wheat because it attracted rampaging rhino from the National Park. Near the house they planted mustard-seed, turmeric, ginger, chili and basil for seasoning, marigolds for festivals and neem to make insect repellent.  In the monsoon they grew enough rice for themselves. 

At the end of the week...

Barun said if Dale and I finished everything, we’d have a day off at the end of our week. He kept his word. Dale rode his son’s bike and I perched on the pannier rack of Barun’s, bouncing over the ruts, through grassland and thick bamboo.

When Dale shouted for joy, Barun joined in and I hung on for dear life.

He showed us his bee-hives - he was the first in the district to sell honey - and we walked through woods alive with butterflies.

But when we reached the river, Barun was suddenly sombre and pointed to an island. Some years before, his sister had gone across to cut bales of long grass for fodder, but wading back she’d stumbled under the heavy load and been swept away. “Drownings happen every year like that,” he said.

Dale took these pictures when we were making our way up river to Lion's Choke - so we knew immediately how Barun's sister had died.

We watched the sunset over the river that turned all to gold before we cycled home in the dark.

And too soon...  it was time to go

We had a grand send-off the next evening: Grandma wrapped us in saris, Mama marked our foreheads with red tikkas and the girls garlanded us with lais of marigold. Barun performed a traditional Nepalese stick dance, leaping high while twirling stout bamboo poles.

Dale said it was collective amazement when I took the poles from Barun, crossed them on the ground, and did a Scottish sword dance – once my father’s forte.

I don’t know if I still hold the record for being Barun’s oldest WWOOFer, but I do know Grandma was sad to see me go. She was ten years my senior yet had eclipsed me in every task – except perhaps, the Highland Fling!

OK, so it's not that flattering, but I think I was channeling some kind of warrior spirit.

OK, so it's not that flattering, but I think I was channeling some kind of warrior spirit.

And Barun?  “Goodbye big sister. Goodbye daughter Dale. Safe journey home to Australia. I want you both to come again.”

 

A hundred years on from Hong Kong’s most calamitous typhoon ever

typhoon 1906 2.PNG

A hundred years ago...

One hundred years ago on the 18th September, 1906, Hong Kong was hit by a typhoon: “…the most appallingly destructive visitation of the kind that the Colony has ever experienced.”

The 1906

By the time I arrived in Hong Kong in 1968, that typhoon was almost forgotten.  I would never have heard about it except for a lie.  My boss lied about her age.  The idea that she was born on board a ship mid-typhoon, appealed to her compulsion for melodrama.  And any old typhoon was not good enough – she told me she was born in The 1906 - the most calamitous typhoon ever.  

When I came to write my memoir about Hong Kong, I found she had been born in 1904, a year not notable for any severe tropical storms.  I laughed - the 1906 suited her much better.

Typhoon warning systems were well established

By 1906 Hong Kong had a good early warning system for typhoons. During the season, several would pass the Colony.  A signal was hoisted in the harbour when one was in the five hundred mile range.  Often it was lowered as the storm blew itself out over the China Sea.  But if the typhoon did close in, a second signal went up indicating that it had moved to within three hundred miles.  Then everyone prepared for the worst.  The final signal was the typhoon gun which was sounded when the storm was about to hit.   

At the signals, the Colony swung into action.  Steam launches towed chains of big flat-bottomed lighters into shelters, while smaller sampans scudded off to find safe havens.  Sails and awnings were reefed and everything was battened down.  Ships at anchor prepared to get up steam and either made for the open sea or paid out more cable to safely ride out the storm in the harbour. 

What made the 1906 so deadly was not just its intensity, it was its speed.  There was only half-an-hour between the first signal and the final gun.  Nothing like it had ever happened before.  Usually there were several hours between each signal.

Never before had one hit with such speed

Captains who’d spent the night ashore were astonished to be woken by the sound of the typhoon gun.  They tried desperately to get back aboard their ships, paying motor-launch skippers enormous amounts to take them out on the harbour.  Even then it was too rough to go alongside and crewmen had to throw lifelines into the water and drag their officers aboard. 

Noise exploded around the Colony.  The wind blew at a hundred-and-fifty miles an hour howling along the shore, shrieking through the streets and roaring up mountainsides.  The roofs of godowns – huge storage sheds – flew off and their walls collapsed. Everywhere signs were falling, shutters banging, glass shattering, rickshaws overturned and sedan chairs were thrown about “like feathers”. 

The harbour was obliterated in a terrible fog of driving rain fused with scud and spindrift whipped from the wave tops.  All along the seawall, sampans and lighters were dashed to pieces. Piers and wharfs started to collapse one after another… “like a house of cards.” 

Eyewitness Account

An extraordinary eyewitness account was written by Captain Outerbridge of the China Navigation Company’s steamer Taming, which came safely through the ordeal.  He crouched behind steel plates in the bow of his ship with two other officers.  They peered through blinding rifts of mist, desperate to gauge if their mooring was holding. 

“Every now and then a ship dragging her anchors as if they were of wood, slid past us, fortunately clear.  Until they were right upon us we had no warning and they passed in a flash…

But the worst feature of all was seeing the small boats go flying past bound for what we knew was destruction.  There was nothing we could do.  Our own fate was in the balance that trembled with every squall that came down heavier than the one before...  In the sampans, where entire families of Chinese live their whole lives, women would hold out their children to us begging in mad appeals that we could not even hear, only guess at from the expression of their faces, as they were whirled along the side of our ship, in much the same way that a piece of sea weed is hurled by the crest of the sea.  We could only look at them and pity them, and there we crouched for more than an hour and most of the time the tears were streaming down the faces of the three of us as we looked at the poor creatures going to death and could not lift a hand to save them.”

And then it was gone

The typhoon left almost as quickly as it had come.  Within three hours it was over.

It was calculated that half of all the Chinese craft in the waters of the colony were lost.

Ships entering the harbour over the next days brought in survivors plucked off floating pieces of wreckage but mainly it was the dead that the sea gave back.

The number of people who perished was never established, but it was in the thousands and may have been as many as ten thousand.

Tales of gallantry, extraordinary rescue and random luck were rife afterwards, but most never had the chance
to tell the tale.   

 

 

The full account – The calamitous typhoon at Hongkong 18th September, 1906, published by the Hong Kong Daily Press, 1906:  http://ebook.lib.hku.hk/HKG/B36228084.pdf

A Merry Laugh in a Tangier Hideaway

International Tangier

Between the 1920s and 1950s, Tangier was a tax-free international zone isolated from the rest of Morocco and controlled by France, Spain and Britain, Italy, Belgium, Holland, Sweden, Portugal, the United States and finally the Soviet Union!  

It quickly gained a reputation for everything naughty, wacky and exotic.

I felt like a glass of wine...

Even now, it’s zany chords remain.  Early one summer evening I decided to go for a drink at the Bar Pilo. The Guide said, unlike most bars, it wasn’t a brothel.   I could have gone back to Caid’s Piano Bar at the Hotel El Minzah, but swank hotels are so passé.

The Bar’s frontage was low-key and there was a minder on duty.  I had a flashback to a revolving vinyl 78 RPM my brother played when I was a kid.  I loved the line:  Just knock three times and whisper low, that you and I were sent by Joe…

The door opened a smidgeon and in I slid, holding my breath
and there I was:

I know a dark secluded place,
        It was shady, with a long marble bar.

A place where no one knows your face,
        Well that was definitely the case.

A glass of wine a fast embrace,
        Wine, yes – but the only other patrons were a very tall handsome woman, heavily made up in a long dress with lots     of lace and I mean lots, and a feather boa; a short, middle-of-the-road man, well oiled, who I took to be deaf and dumb as he was miming madly at the bartender; and occupying the end seat, an inflatable lifesize Santa.

It’s called Hernando’s Hideaway ole!

Some places need time to absorb

My eyes rolled along the bar again, skirting the plastic flowers.  Behind a wall of mirrors, glass shelves were stacked with every conceivable liquor.  Wine came by the bottle,  accompanied by a bowl of warm chick peas with some…  tiny feet.  Hooves actually.  The barman, a small wizened man in a waistcoat and bow tie was quite jolly… “Baaaaa Baaaaa.”

“Lamb’s feet?  Really?  How tiny were the lambs?”  Let’s not go there Gill, I answered to myself.  Besides there were olives marinated in oil and lemon, more olives in harissa, crudities and crispy grilled fish.  A feast without the feet.

The large lady in lace was standing with one foot on the bar rail.  She moved closer and sat down.  I fancied the round red-topped bar stools some counters in a game, but didn’t make my move – we smiled and established a rapport in minor key.   She moved four stools back.

I looked around. The walls were deep, dark pink and the whole place was decked with Christmas decorations.  Fairy lights,  chains in coloured foil, tinsel, hanging stars guiding shepherds, a plastic Christmas tree, and best of all, the rest of the set of blow-up Santas each one smaller than the other.  On a mirror, etched with outlines of a mosque, a painted Santa paused - seemingly impaled on a minaret.

After my third glass, the sinuous Arabic music wove the bizarre seamlessly into ardor and ecstasy.  Forget the fast embrace, this would be a long drawn out affair.  There was a TV tuned to a news channel with no audio and as I drank, I could have sworn the singing voice started emerging from the perfect agile mouth of the presenter who was swaying to the melody.  Even the slightly soft Santa at the bar started to look interesting, well, really he was the only option. 

It was time for me to go – just as the night was about to start.    

Home to my hostel

I wound my way back to the Medina singing softly,
“Just knock three times and you will know, that you’ve arrived at Bar Pilo.”

 

 

PS:

Hernando’s Hideaway is a tango tune from The Pajama Game 1954.  I love it!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLuwyTzAQH8

As Time Goes By

Real Life Romance

It was 1971 when I met Mike in Zambia and fell head-over-heels in love. 

But when he said, “… Here’s looking at you, kid,” I had no idea why. 

I don’t think anyone of our generation escaped seeing Casablanca (1942, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman), but not all of us memorised the whole damn script.

Remember Snuggling-Up at the Drive-In? 

A month or so later I thought I was on track when I took Mike to Gone With the Wind (1939, Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh).  It was showing at the Lusaka Drive-In.  But he went to sleep until the interval when he sat upright, fired up his beat-up Ford Falcon and said, “OK. Let's go!”

It took a lot of persuasion to make him stay for the second half.  He didn’t believe that any film could be that long and or that turgid.  It was almost the end of a beautiful relationship!

Penance

Over the years, I made amends.  I sat through Casablanca at least three times, maybe five….  Not only that but our four daughters have indulged Mike too.

Yet as Time Goes By

I can come clean now;  I never did, and still don’t, get it.  

Ilsa tells Rick she can't think straight and he’ll have to do the thinking for both of them and Rick knows what’s good for her and packs her off without an explanation.  Sexist?  You bet!  What is the appeal?

But still...

A wave of nostalgia did hit me though when travelling solo in Morocco for I learned that the original gin joint in Casablanca was modelled on Caid’s Piano Bar in Hotel El Minzah, Tangier.

Hotel's picture of Caid's Piano Bar

Hotel's picture of Caid's Piano Bar

I was travelling out of a back-pack and covered in a rash, but did my best to smarten-up and sauntered into the El Minzah, a sophisticated old-world hotel overlooking the Bay of Tangier. 

Think palms, orange trees and Moorish archways; courtyards and teak lattice.  The hotel was the brain-child of an English aristocrat and first opened in 1930.  It has welcomed many celebrities over the years and appropriately enough, those old Hollywood stars of the 1940s; Rita Hayworth and Rock Hudson.

It was mid-morning and the hotel was deserted but I found a waiter, ordered a glass of wine and sat in the main courtyard and enjoyed a 'life is absolutely bloody marvellous moment.' 

My picture of the table where I unashamedly took a delicious white wine mid-morning... all to myself alone.

My picture of the table where I unashamedly took a delicious white wine mid-morning... all to myself alone.

Then I tiptoed to the door of Caid’s Bar, pushed it open, and heard Mike’s voice so clearly: “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine…”

Which is why my picture of the Piano Bar is a bit shaky...

My picture of the Piano Bar

My picture of the Piano Bar

A Century Ago Tangier Attracted Artists from All Over the World

Moroccan loggia, 1912 by Hilda Rix Nicholas and Quarazazte Morocco by James McBey

Moroccan loggia, 1912 by Hilda Rix Nicholas and Quarazazte Morocco by James McBey

Journeys into Art in Tangier

It’s the journeys within journeys that I love.  My own personal discoveries of history and politics, of art and authors and of music.  Each new destination, a place to pick up strays; arty people either home grown or blown-in, who I have never heard of and may well be long forgotten in the rolling coast of life.

SELFIES:  Mrs George Mason Nicholas (Hilda Rix Nicholas) 1917 and James McBey

SELFIES:  Mrs George Mason Nicholas (Hilda Rix Nicholas) 1917 and James McBey

Two of my Favourites

Many European artists worked in Tangier in the first decade of the twentieth century.  New to me in Morocco was James McBay.    He was a Scot and his work reminded me of that of Hilda Rix Nicholas, one of my favourite Australian artists.  They were born only a year apart, and I could not but wonder if they had ever met.  They were both in Morocco around the same time, shortly before the outbreak of World War I.   

Both captured the colour and light of Tangier through intimate portraits, street scenes and the market place.  Both gave us unforgettable images of the First World War.  Both had endured great personal tragedy. 

Camoflage by Hilda Rix Nicholas 1914 and Arab Man with a Child by James McBey

Camoflage by Hilda Rix Nicholas 1914 and Arab Man with a Child by James McBey

A Pause for Remembrance in Tangier

A Tear in Tangier

I’m not a sentimental soul so get surprised when something maudlin, corny or schmaltzy triggers a sniff.  Let’s try that again: when something nostalgic, tender or passionate brings tears to my eyes.

These occasions are not rational or even legitimate, but they signal an aliveness within us, part of our emotional heritage but part primordial I think.  We surrender to them or suppress them at our peril.

 
St Andrew's Church

St Andrew's Church, Tangier

St Andrew's Church, Tangier

Ambling around Tangier, I came upon the charming St Andrew’s Church built in 1905.  With admirable grace its design engages with the local culture.  It has a Moorish interior, ornamented with the Lord’s Prayer engraved in Arabic together with quotes from the Koran.  

Buried in Morocco

The graveyard is almost English, lush green and shady; in it there are are buried a dozen or so downed RAF airmen.  I was caught short by five of them, an entire aircrew, their headstones lined up, side by side.  The youngest was nineteen and the oldest twenty-one. They crashed on 31 January 1945. At least sixty million people, some say eighty million, died in World War II.  So why did these graves, well-cared for in a sunny spot, make me cry?
 
Because they were so young, the end of the war only months away - they were probably already talking about what they would do after the war - and they were on a routine patrol; engine failure or weather perhaps.  

We don’t know how to mourn millions and millions, so we mourn the few and that’s all we can do, and do our bit for peace - keep trying to hold Government to account that keep wanting to make war.  That’s all we can do. 

Lts W M Allison & J H Buxman both South African Air Force, Sgts A J Boyles, H J Hutchinson & F E Turner all RAFVR. They were lost when the 22 Sqn SAAF Ventura serial number 6455 (ex RAF FP683) crashed during a routine patrol on 31 January 1945.

Lts W M Allison & J H Buxman both South African Air Force, Sgts A J Boyles, H J Hutchinson & F E Turner all RAFVR. They were lost when the 22 Sqn SAAF Ventura serial number 6455 (ex RAF FP683) crashed during a routine patrol on 31 January 1945.

Finding Cafe Hafa in Tangier

Cafe Hafa, founded in 1921, a Tangier icon that has avoided the dreaded developer!

Cafe Hafa, founded in 1921, a Tangier icon that has avoided the dreaded developer!

The Hafa Hunt

One of my first stops in Tangier was Café Hafa.  It’s wasn’t a long walk from the Kasbah, but far enough to get lost.  I felt foolish because a generational succession of writers, musicians and rock bands had found it without difficulty and I was stone-cold sober.  

Help at Hand

I realised I was being stalked by a women wearing a hijab on a electric mobility scooter followed by a posse in wheelchairs.  She was winning.  Why I found the combination of hijab and buggy incongruous says more about me than her, but there was a sense of deja vu. 

My husband also uses a mobility scooter and if you get to meet him, give him a wide birth. 
It’s red and he is exceedingly good-looking, even with the beard he insists on sporting
these days.  I think he's had his scooter souped up.

In Prague he mowed down a whole covey of Japanese tourists, in Sydney, he pinned a Chinese business man to the wall and he has caused grievous bodily harm to almost every family member.  I hasten to add he is neither xenophobic or guilty of domestic violence, just slow on the brakes. 

So when the good woman hailed me, I kept a safe distance hoping to outpace her. 

I need not have worried - without me saying a word, she knew exactly what I wanted.  She pointed me in the direction of Café Hafa.  

Sheer Delight with Mint Tea

The café was founded in 1921 and is a Tangier icon.  But the really special thing is it hasn’t just stood the test of time,
it’s just stayed there unmoved by time and fame. 

Well truthfully given a few rows of terraces painted blue and white cascading down a steep hillside spotted with gnarly wind-blown trees in a stunning position overlooking the Bay of Tangier, what is there to change?

My delight was that locals still hung out there, the chairs were cheap plastic, the terraces swept peremptorily, the service problematic.  No one had resortified it!  No plaques, nothing on the menu, no Hey Jude Orange Juice or Brown Sugar Mint Tea.

House of Joy

Entrance to House of Joy - a Cheshire Home in Tangier

Entrance to House of Joy - a Cheshire Home in Tangier

On the way back, I went looking for my friend.  She’d gone but I and found a few wheelchairs clustered round the entrance to the gates of a beautiful house - a Cheshire Home.  I walked in and gasped at the beauty of it - the sea blue beyond a profusion of flowers.  It was called House of Joy.  I went to Reception and left a small donation but the young lady said, not unnaturally, that I could not go further.  As I left I spoke to a lovely lass who was wheelchair-bound and had lived there for thirty-three years.


Leonard Cheshire was an RAF Group Captain who started the charity in 1948 and has left a marvellous legacy. 

All Over Tangier in a Rash

Watching the world go by in Tangier   

Watching the world go by in Tangier

 

Normally...

Normally I read travel advice on health and am sensible because I’m reluctant to miss out on anything, waylaid by some avoidable affliction. 

Had I read it, I’d have known that sand-flies and ticks and fleas run riot in Morocco.

A Mighty Rash

When I left the Atlas Mountains, the rash that started after I was accosted by tiny black mites in a filthy eco-gite in the Mid-Atlas, became ferocious.  It ran, not just across my cheeks and forehead, but over my eye-lids, across the bridge of my nose making it difficult to wear my glasses, around the edge of my ears and all over my hands, especially along the sides of my fingers.

Sand-Fly Central

I changed my travel plans because I seriously doubted if immigration in Spain, my next destination, would let me in.  Instead I got the night bus from Marrakesh and, in the early morning, arrived just outside the Medina in Tangier.   I avoided the Petite Socco, once notorious for pimps and hash, but now a tourist hub, and walked further into the Medina until I found a simple and clean guesthouse.

I spent the first couple of days sitting on my laptop increasingly terrified by the list of diseases I might have picked up: Leishmaniasis, Tick Bite Fever, Sand Fly Fever, Mediterranean Spotted Fever, West Nile virus, Filariasis, Typhus and Scabies.

A rash of signs in Tangier!   

A rash of signs in Tangier!

 

The Ancient Landlubber...

I presented at every pharmacy I could find.  They all asked me if I had had a fever, did I feel dizzy, and when I said no temperature, only supreme anxiety, they sold me creams and seemed remarkably unmoved by my plight - although keeping their distance I noted.

No matter what I applied, the rash persisted.  I was embarrassed to speak to anyone,  swathed my head in a scarf, keeping out of the sun which exacerbated the itch and mooched around shoulders hunched, so even the hawkers avoided me.

Some days I'd blink back tears, imagining I’d slope around Tangier evermore, never to return to the bosom of my family, some kind of Ancient Landlubber, accosting Aussie tourists with my tale.  They’d shrink back in horror and I’d beg them to take messages to the other side. 
 

Tangier; a City Not To Be Missed

My early morning cafe outside the gate to the Medina in Tangier

My early morning cafe outside the gate to the Medina in Tangier

I have a fairy godmother, celestial patroness or maybe my muse is some male diviner.  Whoever.  Lady Luck is on my side when I pack my bags and invoke the traveller in me to come to the fore.

For without that damned rash I’d never have visited Tangier, now on my short list as one of the most delightful cities in the world.  In the end I didn’t want to leave. 

Within days I had my favourite early morning cafe just outside the Medina.  It was frequented exclusively by men, the elders.  I might not have sat there had the owner not smiled and welcomed me.  Each morning he'd see me coming across the square and my coffee would be ready at my table.  I'd take my book but seldom opened it.  It was a rare spot for me; a place where I just sat and, with a sense of supreme contentment, watched the world go by.

 

No Early Start From a Moroccan Gite

Just outside my gite...

Just outside my gite...

A Very Nice Gite

After my epic journey to the Atlas Mountains with Kissy Kissy, I stayed at a gite run entirely by five young men.  I was just a bit weary and so my heart sank; I could have done with some female company.  I need not have had any reservations; they were courteous and charming and I had a relaxed, happy stay.  I'm not so sure though what impression I made...

A Very Early Start

I paid my bill the night before I left and told them I was leaving very early, but when I got up at 4 am to catch my bus, I found the establishment locked like a fort.  I couldn’t get out.  I tried getting through the kitchens to the back.  Everything was locked.  I ruffled through keys behind the reception desk, but with no luck.  So I took off my backpack and decided on a window escape.  Nope.  This was locks and padlock country and not draw-bolts and mortises.

Moroccan doors serve their purpose!  Aren't they gorgeous - I collected them on my journey and have a whole folder of Moroccan doors.  Just don't try getting in or OUT!

Moroccan doors serve their purpose!  Aren't they gorgeous - I collected them on my journey and have a whole folder of Moroccan doors.  Just don't try getting in or OUT!

A Very Scary Moment

I headed for the roof where I thought the young men slept.  I did not want to raise the whole house so crept up the wooden ladder and pushed the trapdoor above my head.  He’d been lying with one ear up and padded quietly to the hatch, no doubt with his head on one side. 

As I arose through the opening into the moonlight, I heard the chink of a chain behind me and swung my head.  We met eyeball to eyeball.  Breath to breath.  The Hound of the Baskervilles on a Moroccan roof.  I dropped the door as it lunged at my head.   The resounding bang restarted my heart which was going like a hammermill by the time I slid down the rungs like liquid and hit the ground. 

A guard dog on the roof had never occurred to me. 

I stood shaking, waiting, listening to the barking, the scratching and the clinking chain.  Well, no-one could sleep through that commotion I thought.  Someone did wake.  They shouted at the dog, but it kept on barking.  Suddenly there was a thud and a yelp and it stopped with a whimper.  That was it.  Nothing more. 

My bus came in a few minutes.  I flew down the stairway remembering I’d seen an old man shuffle through door at the back of the reception area.  I knocked gently, then harder and called out that I needed him.  A man groaned and grumbled.  I hammered some more, my voice rising.  He shouted.   "Bugger-off,” -  unmistakable in any language.  Had there been a question in his voice, I could have persisted.  Bugger off it was.  No way was he getting up for me.   

I’d missed the bus but was too agitated to go back to bed, so sat down on my pack, lent against the front door and read my book until my jailers sleepily emerged. 

They were of course terribly apologetic and flagged down every car outside until hours later they found someone they knew and trusted to give me a lift.  They also made me the most beautiful breakfast and refused to take any money for it. 

A Very Avid Woman... The Story Goes

It was only later when I heard that mature English women travelling solo were infamous for their single-minded pursuit of Moroccan men that I wondered what stories would be told in the gite after my departure...

This was a house near my gite - I just loved the veranda - but not for too wild a party.

This was a house near my gite - I just loved the veranda - but not for too wild a party.

Keeping Solo in the High Atlas

One of my most memorable trips travelling solo
in Morocco was into the High Atlas Mountains
by Grand Taxi

On the lower mountain slopes, exuberant swaths of green and pink oleander bushes traced the paths of numerous streams and rivers; lustrous against a backdrop of biscuit-coloured mountains. 

Higher up the bare-rock cliffsides swirled, tilting and tumbling.  Gigantic scribblings that diarised colossal upheavals.  A work that echoed still with latent power.

Tabant to Zaouit Ahansal

My destination was Tabant, a small town with a school for mountain guides, that served hill-walkers and climbers. 
In the town I hired a guide with a car as I wanted to visit a woman’s cooperative in the village of Zaouiat Ahansal
some distance away.  

Tabant and the local petrol station...

Tabant and the local petrol station...

It was one of those rare journeys where I truly shifted to a spectator’s seat; the backdrop so endowed, it took on a cinematic quality.

The first part of the journey took us along the Ait Bougomez Valley, past many Berber villages and the towers of ruined kasbahs that looked as if they had hatched out of the mud. 

Irrigation schemes instituted half-a-century before had transformed the valley floor and it was gorgeously banded with orchards and fields of bright green and gold.  On the hillsides above, ancient mud-brick terraces were abandoned - built with so much effort, sweat and tears, they were gradually returning to the earth.

Ait Bougomez Valley

Ait Bougomez Valley

The car made heavy work of the climb and we had to stop frequently to let the engine cool

My troubles didn’t start until we were far above the villages, when Mohammad pulled off the road to take a last look over his valley before we swung over the Tizi’Tirghist Pass. 

“Let us look at the view,” he said, but Mohammad had something else in mind for our stop.   “Kissy kissy now?” 

I looked at him in amazement, primly adjusted my headscarf,  and stared him down.  “No.  No kissy, kissy."

He was an agile little spiv, his verdant mustache fanning with his enormous grin.  He was agitated and hopped
from foot to foot.

“Just little kissy kissy,” he repeated, reaching to take my hand.

I snatched it away and took a few steps back.  

“Absolutely not,” I said in my best English accent.  I was taller than him and I hoped, rather imposing.  A sort of Maggie Smith moment.

But I didn’t feel that confident.  I was, after all, standing on a precipice, we had seen one other car in the last two hours and in any case we were off-road.
 
I gave Mohammad a withering glare and walked resolutely back to the car.  

I was surprised and unnerved, but it didn't take much thought to know it was too ridiculous to be menacing.  I was at least twenty years his senior, a grandmother, short-sighted, seriously deaf and rather grubby - I had been backpacking for weeks - and I had a horrible rash from mites I had encountered earlier at an so-called eco-gite.  I was hardly hot stuff. 

I thought about imperiously demanding a return to Tabant, but whatever I had got myself into, I was halfway there.  Past the point of no return.

Back in the car, I talked of my husband, daughters and grandchildren.  He remained determinedly unconvinced.  The stops on the deserted road for sight-seeing were frequent and he repeated his offer at each one.  Back in the car, he’d reverse with his arm along the back of my seat, touching my shoulders.  As he drove, he constantly adjusted the car windows, pinning me back as he reached across to mine. Even tilting his rear-view mirror he managed to brush my forehead. I squirmed to keep out of his reach and pulled my headscarf tighter, my sleeves lower.

“Kissy, kissy?”  

“No kissy, kissy!”

“Kissy, kissy?”

I grew more confident too, until I just rolled my eyes and tossed my head like a recalcitrant old grey mare. 

Little did he know, I thought, focusing my glare on his mustache, how I loathed facial hair.

The Tizi'Tirghist Pass

The Pass, the highest in Northern Africa at 2,629 metres, was well defined.  The rough road was originally built by the French in the 1930s and it there that the last wild Barbary Lion, Africa’s largest cat, was sighted and sadly shot in 1942. 

Once through the Pass, mountains stretched forever, turbulent, earthy, wild and harsh.  Patches of snow were still about, shrinking in the spring thaw.  There were a few stunted trees scattered over the taupe landscape, but mostly the vegetation was ‘hedgehog’ clusters - greenery that had adapted and grew stunted, bunched together in pincushions clinging to the steep rough terrain.  Many were in flower and made a puffy patchwork of mauve, yellow and white tussocks while some remained shades of green with a velvet sheen.    

Taupe landscape that rolls on for ever and ever...

Taupe landscape that rolls on for ever and ever...

Nomad Tents Made of Camel-Hair

At first I gazed unseeing at the spectacular and grim mountain slopes until Mohammad pointed out black camel-hair tents of nomad camps and in some places, stone built kraals and low huts. Gradually I too was able to pick out a flash of washing or a group of camels, but it was the black tents that really thrilled me.

Eggs never tasted better

We reached a mud house that had turned one room into a cafe where a smiling Berber girl boiled us eggs in a kettle.  She deftly sliced them, sprinkling salt and spices, before dousing the dish with oil.  Served with hot mint tea and flat bread, it was absolutely delicious. 

Making it Plain in a Pretty Gite

From there it wasn’t far to Zaouiat Ahansal, a village clustered around a river-crossing in a gorge.  I had specifically asked Mohammad to drop me at a gite that was run entirely by women.  He said yes, but took me elsewhere to his friend’s gite.  It was charming and clean overlooking a rushing river tributary with pink hollyhocks in the garden. 

A girl showed me to a room with four mattresses on the floor and I choose one and dropped my backpack beside it.  Within moments Mohammad was there too dropping his bag by the mattress next to mine.  

“No way Mohammad, you are not sleeping in this room.”

He feigned surprise, shrugged and said it was the only room.

“Well, you can sleep in the car.”  I picked up his bag and slung it unceremoniously out the door.

I got on well with the family although I felt the father, the proprietor, took a dim view of me.   After dinner the three of us sat in the little lounge,   With solemn disapproval on one side and crazy man approval on the other, I excused myself and took a walk up the road.

I was soon joined by my ardent friend.
 
“Kissy, kissy?’

“Fuck off!”  I growled.   I was out of patience. 

He licked his lips nervously and I wondered if I might have made a mistake.  Maybe he liked rough talk.  I strode back to the village.

That night I stuck a chair against the door of my room, it’s back under the handle.  From my mattress, I watched the handle move up and down in the candlelight but my improvised door lock held and had it not, I was ready to do a fair impersonation of a banshee that would have summoned the entire village. 

I didn’t want to drive back with Mohammad but when I spoke to the proprietor there was clearly little alternative.

Weaving centre and a hollyhock outside my bedroom window at the gite.

Weaving centre and a hollyhock outside my bedroom window at the gite.

Delightful Zaouiat Ahansal

In the morning Mustafa, the son of the household, took me down to see the small Atelier du Tissages de l’Association du Zaouiat Ahsal - a women's weaving centre.  I would have liked to have bought a rug but they were too heavy.  I watched the girls at work and took mint tea with them.  To my dismay were very enthusiastic about the artificial colours they were starting to use. They didn’t fade, were so bright and cheerful and easy to prepare. 

Mustafa told me about the Association he had set up to control the rubbish in the village because trekkers were discarding plastic bottles and other garbage that the village had no way to deal with it.
 
The highlight of the morning though, was not the women’s weaving that I had travelled so far to see, but Mustafa’s tour of the village’s magnificent ancient kasbah.  He led me through a dark passage, up a staircase so black, I had to feel my way slowly as he scampered ahead.  We emerged onto a precarious roof space and mounted a wooden ladder to access an imposing tower and then he took me down again by a different route, using steps which were no more than axed notches in heavy wooden poles.  Villagers used the lower rooms to stable their donkeys.  The site was being restored with money from Government; a casual process.

The kasbah at Zaouiat Ahansalwhere the local leader lived and where the village would gather when under attack. It is being restored with Government funds and is quite magnificent!

The kasbah at Zaouiat Ahansalwhere the local leader lived and where the village would gather when under attack. It is being restored with Government funds and is quite magnificent!

Homeward Bound

The journey back was punctuated by Mohammad’s protestations of infatuation which by now didn’t even get a rise out of me.  I was glad to part from his company but wished him well for after all he had taken me safely on an extraordinary odyssey.

Ahhhhhh....!

A week or so later I met some seasoned Moroccan travellers who asked if I’d had any difficulty travelling alone. 
No, I said, for the Moroccans were genuinely warm and delightful hosts.

“You didn’t you have any trouble with Moroccan men?”

“No, well not really.”

“We wondered because, you see, it’s well established that mature German and English women come to Morocco travelling solo looking for toyboys. They pay good money to have a fling.”

“Not my kind of travel!” I laughed...  but then I thought about poor old Mohammad.

“Ahhhhhh……,” I added, “Well that might explain one particular encounter.”

Footnote:  I have changed the real name of my guide.  He was not called Mohammad!